Does postmodernism entail nihilism?



Postmodernism characterizes mainly as the view that there's no objective truth, no objective moral values, and that logic and reason are socially constructed concepts. These seem to me to be characteristics that align quite well with nihilism. So, is postmodernism actually a form of nihilism?

I know there are different views inside postmodernism, but I'm talking about the generally known one that I listed above.

Yechiam Weiss

Posted 2018-03-07T17:30:30.307

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Maybe: "for example, Jean Baudrillard and others have called postmodernity a nihilistic epoch; and some religious theologians and figures of religious authority have asserted that postmodernity and many aspects of modernity represent a rejection of theism, and that such rejection of theistic doctrine entails nihilism."

– Mauro ALLEGRANZA – 2018-03-07T17:56:39.763

@MauroALLEGRANZA that seems like a theistic attack, not a philosophical stand. I also know of an attempt at postmodern theology, though it could be questioned to be actually postmodern (at least in the view I've stated in the question). – Yechiam Weiss – 2018-03-07T18:00:30.263

2Whether something is socially constructed or not is not linked to nihilism but to whether that something is innate or not. For example, is gender or homosexuality socially constructed or part of the way people were born? It might challenge particular current beliefs to accept a postmodernist position on something, but that should not imply that all beliefs are of no value which is how I understand nihilism. – Frank Hubeny – 2018-03-07T19:28:41.070

2I do not see how it aligns. According to a nihilist there is no truth, no values, and logic is a pretense, according to a social constructivist (postmodernism is a broader notion) those things are well around, and function more or less how traditionalists thought, they are just culturally dependent. As long as we stay within a culture there will be little practical difference between a traditionalist and a social constructivist, and both would oppose a nihilist. It is only at the times of cultural breakdown and/or cross-cultural contact that the difference starts to matter. – Conifold – 2018-03-08T01:11:54.207

If we look at it from a sociological perspective, yes it could "entail" nihilism, at least for a time. This is similar to the old fact-value distinction of the logical positivists, how it took hold among the populace, and the mass confusion over existentialism(s)...again, studied as sociological phenomena. These terms and ideas got socialized, taken up by the masses, causing general befuddlement, stupefication, and a degree of drama and humor. Also keep in mind, new terms equal new dissertation topics. – Gordon – 2018-03-08T07:19:27.240

@Conifold but postmodernism holds there's no objective truth/moral values, which gives a rather extreme relativistic ethical system (even saying "system" won't be exactly true for postmodernism, as it may entail some sense of objectiveness). This is where I think the two meet. The social constructionism on its own won't entail nihilism, or course, but that isn't all that postmodernism stands for. – Yechiam Weiss – 2018-03-08T09:29:47.677

I think it's especially true when you come to an ethical example that brings the postmodernist to think about acting morally (and the most obvious example for this would be cross-cultural) - let's say one sees a person hitting his wife, which is something that's acceptable in the latter man's culture. The postmodernist will have to consider two choices - a) act, and stop that person from hitting his wife. This will theoretically be against his postmodernism, because the relativistic ethics tells him that this rejects the notion of "every culture and its own morality". – Yechiam Weiss – 2018-03-08T09:39:44.833

b) move on without doing nothing, which will be the "correct" postmodernist response, because you have no right to mess with the other culture's ethics. This will, at least to me, seem like a nihilistic response. Maybe from a different reason, but practically it will be the same. – Yechiam Weiss – 2018-03-08T09:40:06.130

Those in power know how to use both rationalism and irrationalism to further their power, though the irrational is more dangerous imo, and it can be particularly bad if people give up hope. Note, these outakes from the Leo Lowenthal interview as an example. He took a stand. He had a firm point of view. If you can get the book from a library you will find that Lowenthal addresses postmodernism at the very end.

– Gordon – 2018-03-08T17:54:04.270

Kant, Hegel and Marx were rationalists. There is a better way to do things, and a worse way. We can improve the status quo: make it more rational. Title: "An unmastered past : the autobiographical reflections of Leo Lowenthal" Author Jay, Martin, 1944- Publisher:University of California Press,Pub date:c1987.Pages:281p. :ISBN:0520056388 – Gordon – 2018-03-08T18:00:00.233

2When one acts one acts on one's own beliefs and values, be they culturally dependent or not (and at least some of them certainly are), not on objective truths and values even if they do exist, for the simple reason that that is all one has access to. So your postmodernist is not threatened with any practical schizophrenia. I am also not sure why "system" can not apply to cultural or even individual items, people talk about "belief systems", and when a writers write elaborate fiction they sure create fictional systems. There is no connotation with "objectivity" in "system". – Conifold – 2018-03-08T18:56:25.303

"say hitting his wife, acceptable in the latter man's culture. The postmodernist will act against his postmodernism, because the relativistic ethics" This is a caricature that shows no idea what postmodernism is about, which is considering things like power relations and bias in how we make decisions. Postmodernity is a condition, rather than a doctrine. Reacting against metanarratives, including oppression justified by 'culture'. – CriglCragl – 2018-03-09T11:45:44.727

@CriglCragl I agree that what you're saying is an aspect of postmodernism, I don't agree that this is all that postmodernism stands for. – Yechiam Weiss – 2018-03-09T11:47:51.590

That is not what I implied. – CriglCragl – 2018-03-09T12:32:04.173



Postmodernism is an abstraction. There are only postmodern theorists; and if we look at the major postmodern theorists we find a definite, non-nihilistic ethical dimension to their work. The following extract, backed up by references. provides ample evidence :

One of the most persistent, and loudest, complaints raised against postmodernism concerns its allegedly enervating moral stance. According to critics, the postmodern critique, by deconstructing all foundational claims to knowledge and truth, leads to one of two extremely unpleasant ethical alternatives. Either it undermines any possibility of moral judgment, leaving only debilitating nihilism in its wake, or, what amounts to the same thing, it abandons the search for moral standards altogether in favor of a kind of infantile libertarianism where “anything goes.” Anyone who cared (or dared) to examine the literature more closely would, of course, find this accusation to be a gross oversimplification. With the arguable exception of Baudrillard, whose “fatal strategies” betray a distinctly premodern longing for the pastoral simplicities of earlier times, all of the major figures whose names are associated with the postmodern movement (Lyotard, Foucault, Derrida) have produced a considerable body of work addressed to moral or ethical considerations. Lyotard has focused almost exclusively on ethics, or ethically related topics such as politics and justice, in just about everything he has written since The Postmodern Condition (see especially Lyotard and Thebaud 1985; Lyotard 1 988a, 1 988b, 1990). In a similar fashion, toward the end of his life Foucault increasingly devoted his attention to the ways in which individuals are constituted as moral selves (see Foucault 1986, 1988). Finally, a major theme in Derrida’s recent work concerns the ethical significance of differance in the encounter with others (see Derrida 1984, 1988a 1988b). However one evaluates the results of these inquiries (and I surely have my own reservations), the charge that the postmodern critique is necessarily morally bankrupt is uninformed. Many of those advancing such blanket condemnations seem more concerned with bewailing the reckless slaughter of their own,sacred moral cows at the hands of the irreverent French than with examining the complexities of the postmodern critique. ( David R. Dickens, 'The Ethical Horizons of Postmodernity', Symbolic Interaction, Vol. 18, No. 4, Ethnographically Yours (Winter 1995), pp.535-6.)


Derrida, Jacques. 1988a. “The Politics of Friendship.” Journal of Philosophy 85(4): 632-644.

Derrida, Jacques. 1988b. “Afterword: Toward An Ethic of Discussion.” Pp. 111-160 in 'Limited, lnc.', Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

Derrida, Jacques. 1984. “Deconstruction and the Other.” Pp. 107-1 26 in Dialogues with Contemporary Continental Thinkers. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1986. The Care of the Self. New York: Pantheon.

Foucault, Michel. 1988. Politics, Philosophy, Culture, edited by Lawrence Kritzman. New York : Routledge.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois. 1988a. 'The Differend: Phrases in Dispute.' Minneapolis: University

Lyotard, Jean-Francois. 1 988b Peregrinations: Law, Form, Event. New York: Columbia.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois. 1990. Heidegger and “the Jews” '. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois, and Jean Thebaud. 1985 'Just Gaming'. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Pre, backed up by references,ss.

Geoffrey Thomas

Posted 2018-03-07T17:30:30.307

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No. E.g. ' Foucault Truth And The Death Of God'

Postmodernism is the stance that meaning isn't universal and outside ourselves. Nihilism is the stance that meaning is essentially a fiction.


Posted 2018-03-07T17:30:30.307

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The philosopher Stanley M. Rosen wrote a book on Nihilism. It is worth reading. I don't think he uses the word postmodernism even once. Why should he? He didn't need the word. We already had words like relativism, laissez-faire, classical liberalism (now called libertarianism). Anything goes.

What did Lyotard have in mind: he was against the violence of the meta-narrative. The big, controlling story. Levinas would agree with him. So would Nietzsche.

Foucault, after Nietzsche, wisely focused on the exercise of power. It can be exercised in many ways, and through the rational and the irrational. We certainly live in times of manipulation today.

The highest art is architecture. Both Le Corbusier and F.L. Wright not only desired to show a rational possible way to live, but actually to dictate how to live within the interior of their structures. They were both intrusive in this respect.

This was just too rational. It was an overdose of rationalism, and there was a rebellion against this totalizing, totalitarian trend of modernism; particularly in modern interior residential architecture. And there was a rebellion against the exercise of rational power by the expert.

What have we learned? Yes, it is better for for man to be rational, but not too rational. Even Habermas may have gone a bit too far with his rational expectations for man. There has to be a balance.

Title: Nihilism: a philosophical essay; Author: Rosen, Stanley; Publisher:Yale University Press,Pub date:1969.


Posted 2018-03-07T17:30:30.307

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As I've already stated, I'm not ever trying to imply that nihilism entails postmodernism, but rather exactly the opposite. – Yechiam Weiss – 2018-03-09T00:21:32.733

@yechiamweiss yes, I understand that. – Gordon – 2018-03-09T01:35:09.977


Postmodernity is simply what came after (or later than) modernity. It marks a cultural change but the specifics are not determined. Indeed, nuanced indeterminacy and deconstructionism are features of postmodernism.

Some schools of thought hold that modernity ended in the late 20th century – in the 1980s or early 1990s – and that it was replaced by postmodernity, while others would extend modernity to cover the developments denoted by postmodernity, while some believe that modernity ended after World War II.

Asserting that postmodernism entails nihilism is an overly specific determination, not least because the scrambling of meaning does not necessarily lead to the impossibility of moral judgment.

Chris Degnen

Posted 2018-03-07T17:30:30.307

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But that's why I made a bit more specific definition of postmodernism in the question. – Yechiam Weiss – 2018-03-08T12:23:55.417

Your assumption that moral judgments do not exist in a postmodern world seems erroneous. I don't see how you get there. As I wrote, deconstruction of meaning does not mean you can not tell kindness from cruelty. – Chris Degnen – 2018-03-08T13:42:55.777

I don't say that don't exist, I say they exist only subjectively, hence calling it relativistic and not objective. – Yechiam Weiss – 2018-03-08T16:56:55.387

Well if you have morality then you don’t have nihilism. – Chris Degnen – 2018-03-08T18:40:38.060

You might find this interesting:

– Chris Degnen – 2018-03-08T18:51:31.853


Not necessarily, postmodernismit is an aesthetic current that takes certain degrees of freedom, both on the text (or sometimes metatext) and on the themes/characters and, more importantly, it is rare that it takes itself seriously. having said this, it is not necessarily connected to nihilism, its relation to this philosophy is the same as for all other movements. If you take for example a postmodern masterpiece like Infinite Jest one can argue that there is a good deal of nihilism/solipsism that crawls under its pages but if on the other hand you look at another postmodern masterpiece like Jerusalem you will find the exact opposite in it. I believe that the widespread paradigm nihilism = postmodernism is to be attributed, for example, to the novels of Thomas Pynchon, whome are so maximalists that often the reader loses himself in the entropy of the subplots and in the lives of hundreds of characters, to the point of being led to think that in the end nothing has much sense, forgetting instead that it is the tides of plots and characters that create the gargantuan totality of the story, in the most Hegelian sense of the term.


Posted 2018-03-07T17:30:30.307

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